From The Animal Days

 

Photo: Mathilda Khoo, Unsplash.

I was, in turn, and without any one hindering the others,
a saint, a traveler, a tightrope walker.

Rafael Cadenas

 

I’m going to kill my animal
rise up grown

Patricia Guzmán

 

Chapter I

Rafael stands on the edge of a big stone wall, waving his arms up and down like a bird, flexing his knees and flapping as if he were about to take off in flight, as if he were going to throw himself onto me. He talks and talks. Every time he leans forward I’m sure he’s about to fall. He plays, feints, regains his balance, beats his wings, teeters, seems like he’s going to fall yet again, then recenters himself. It’s all training, he says. Control. It’s something you have to learn. He flaps, swings his hips, keeps talking. You have to close your eyes, he says, bending his knees, closing them.

I start to wonder how long the dance will last, what kind of tempo this is. The ritual is starting to bore me. Just as I’m about to go and leave him there, everything quickens. He lands beside me as lightly as he’d clambered up.

“This is Berkeley University. Ewe-see at Berkeley.”

“I noticed.”

Later we’re at María and Roberto’s apartment, sharing the bed with them, surrounded by rabbits. To the left, in a corner beside the window, is a pile of dirty clothes, where our hosts rummage every morning in search of the least-reeky garments. The room smells like old sweat and weed. When we wake up, we have to be careful not to step in the pools of urine the pets have left all over the floor. Scattered excrement, food. Days later, little brown pellets start to appear in my clothes. The rabbits and their trails have taken over everything.

My third and last memory from this time is a scene from Indian Rocks. A phosphorescent-green park full of massive gray and brown rock formations, enormous prehistoric sloths. Apart from the petrified stone animals, there’s no one in sight. I can’t feel my ears. Only the liquid streaming from my nose, the drops I wipe off and try to dry directly with pinched fingers. I rub my hands on my Lycra leggings. The edges of the rocks are sketched in silhouette against the electric sky. The only way to keep our hands warm is to shake them. Resting after every attempt, we rotate our wrists from side to side. We stretch our forearms. We stretch our fingers and palms, forming a downward lever with the other hand. My arms are numb. It hurts to stretch them. Rafael says that pain is pleasure and his great dream is to parachute off El Capitan. We climb up the boulders. We study the most challenging routes and give each other instructions.

“Now you. Foot here, right hand there, the other in this spot here. Now lift your foot. This hand in the crack, the other one here, then a dynamic. Push. That’s it. Come up over the top. Long stretch with the right arm or you won’t get there. Look if it helps. Good. Push hard. There you go. Try with this one. Keep going.”

“I’m coming.”

“I’ve got you.”

“You’ve got me?”

“Come on, don’t hold back.”

I knew about El Cap because he carried it around on a beat-up postcard with soft, rounded corners. A thousand-meter granite wall with a heart carved into the whole center and a relief that looks like a nose, which is exactly what it’s called.

The radiant wall materializes in my memory, always posing the same questions. How can rock possibly reflect light that way. The relationship between the truth and its exact moment of emergence. If the shape of what we see depends on conditions external to us, if the truth depends on the timing of its arrival or the angle of its perception. Does authenticity run on a schedule. Are there plausible or impossible ecosystems, depending on the windowpane, or on the light, better put, they’re seen with. Why are there true places that seem false. Whether we can all live in absolutely any ecosystem, and what happens if we can’t.

His friends said he had a drinking problem. That he got violent when he drank, and he drank often. That he wouldn’t stop until he saw blood, his opponent’s or his own, it didn’t matter. He’d tear himself to pieces in the street for no reason at all, like a cowboy, or like how people in my country say cowboys fight: out of stubbornness or the need to show that they’re macho men or that they can be. I’d heard that he and his girlfriend often came to blows, that she’d hit him and he’d bite her back, that they’d blast through bags of coke and end up attacking each other with their fists and their teeth. That she was a wild animal. That they’d cheat, that they’d get shitfaced and fuck anyone who crossed their path. That nobody ever said no; they were magnetic like that. Everyone would spread their legs for them. They’d believe the rumors about the other’s infidelities (whether false or true, one thing or the opposite) and the slip or the suspicion would be paid in blood. In raw flesh.

That day, in the green-gray park, I decided to ask him if it was true. He frowned and stood up.

“Here’s the deal with this boulder. I use this for support. You have to see if it works for you. If not, try this one,” he said, climbing up to the triangular rock and sliding off along the edge in three seconds. “It’s easy. You try it. Pay attention. Control.”

That was our sport. Hunting for problems.

Our hands reddened, sensing the alchemy of chalk and sweat collected under our winter clothes, we sought shelter from the wind behind the biggest boulder. We pulled out our dented thermos, coated in stickers, and drank some coffee. As we passed the cup back and forth, I taped up a blister on the verge of bursting and he sorted the pot seeds he’d been carrying in a candy tin with no candy in it. It was phosphorescent, mossy, and typical of the weed we’d buy from the Colombian guy; it left us jolted, electric, our ears ringing after just three hits. Rafael talked, not looking at me, as if to himself. Into his own compressed ears.

“If I drink from the bottle, that means a shitshow for sure. Blood. That’s what I’ve learned. I open a bottle, a bottle of anything,” he said, growing more emphatic. His gaze was steady and grave, his brow furrowed. “Of whatever, Julia. And I fucking lose it. I have too much energy.”

He continued with his task, filling another sheet of rolling paper and sliding his thumbs toward his spread fingers.

“Sometimes I feel like I can stop a moving train. I don’t know how to explain it. I get confused when I try.”

I didn’t say anything. His swollen, callused fingers—they seemed stiff, almost deformed—worked with great care, caressing the paper as he rolled it up and cinched the tobacco. A bricklayer doing origami. His tongue flicked out. He finished sealing it. He held it out to me with his arms stretched long, lowering his head and looking down at my feet. There was a taut cord between the two images: his rough body, his attentive bow. Two possibilities. I accepted the cigarette and returned the gesture. I played the damsel’s game. I lit it, aware of my own fascination with the strange contrast, the rift between them. You keep living, you keep getting to know yourself.

“All I know is that I don’t fight anymore,” he continued. “I take it easy. I’ve learned how to go with the flow, as the gringos say.”

I wondered if the bit about the train was true, if he really thought he had superpowers. The childishness of the image struck me now. He spoke as if he were eight, nine years old. I thought about how flexibility and incongruity complement each other. Seen from outside, a body’s movement along the rope is unsettling, improbable. The possible versions of the man before you are only troubling if you look at them warily from a distance. If you refuse the pact. Everyone’s an evolving species. An endangered chameleon. A single tightrope from the day we’re born till the day we die.

Thinking about inconsistency, I had to stand. Grit in my eyes.

“Want to fly?’ he asked me.

With his hands wrecked and the thermos empty, lying on his back in the grass with his legs stretched skyward like columns, he instructs me. I bend my knees and settle my back onto the palms of his hands and the soles of his feet. I move backward. His feet receive my lower back; I feel his fingers. I support my dorsal against his hands. I’m a bow, my chest opens out toward the clouds, my arms fall slack to each side. Dead limbs. I struggle to breathe; my lungs don’t have room to inflate. I gasp, but it’s just fear.

“Open your wings. Relax your wings.”

I start breathing. I close my eyes. The fear evaporates. He folds me, massages my back with his soles and palms, turns me around, and I let him. My will is to have no will. A rush of air inward. The force that pulls you toward the undersoil is the same force that lifts you up. I see the color of the grass before me. I feel his limbs pressing into the bends of my body. I feel the weight of my inner thighs entrusted to his feet. I feel my armpits filling his hands. He travels the entire length of my body as he moves me. He turns me over twice more, like a vine. I’m a knot. He ties me and undoes me, he twists me and my vertebrae crack. I close my eyes every so often so I don’t have to see what he’s doing. So I don’t have to know what I’m showing him. The line of my breasts. My ass. My lower abdomen announcing myself, two millimeters fleeing their Lycra toward the light. Everything passes. Your body doesn’t matter when someone takes over your body. If you took charge of it yourself, you’d never let anyone touch you again. I’m floating and don’t have to do anything. I’m a jellyfish. I grow into the four aquatic throbs he offers me as assurance. I’m an embryo swimming in my mother’s belly. Rafael calls it flying. I call it diving, returning to the uterus. I’m a freediver, an amphibian. You have to close your eyes underwater. I’m a deep-sea creature. There’s no light inside your body.

The cold and the fear had vanished; I’m not sure when. My eyelids parted. Every depth has its shore. Every precipice has its landscape. When he returned me to the surface, flexing his legs and placing me gingerly onto the ground, it was time to go.

“You’re a natural.”

I stayed there. Astonished by my trust, by my viscous submission, by the tingling in my lower abdomen despite the layers of clothes and the germinalness of everything. I took note. I accepted the photo, took up my new body, recognizing the part of me that was uncommanded, not even by myself. He gathered our things. The wind chilled my cheeks as it rose up from the city. This is the beginning, I thought suddenly and without explanation. Sometimes it happens that way. It’s a matter of time. Every window has to open and show something. There are photos you understand long after looking at them for the first time. There are uncertain seeds. The first pages start to turn and that’s when you know. Two days later my whole body still hurt. Like after a good fuck.

Soon after, I received a demonstration, a preview of the moving train plus the alcohol, too. I witnessed it in Caracas on the night of the DJ incient. We went to a party Lupe had invited us to; she was dating a guitarist and she’d beg us to come at every possible chance. Partly to share the next day’s hangover, so she wouldn’t be the only one climbing with a weight belt in La Guairita, but mostly so she wouldn’t end up all alone in a dark corner of some club after dawn, not knowing where to even start looking for her rockstar, finding herself next to two drunks locked in their own personal porno, or alongside three cokeheads fighting over a shared bag. Her boyfriend was a popular guy. He’d stop to greet everyone and their mother every couple of steps, so if Lupe showed up without climbing buddies she’d have a lousy time. Anesthetized by alcohol, she’d end up in the middle of the dance floor or adrift in a hallway, anchorless, looking all around her. Suspended in the void. Until the guy showed up, or until her accidental company grew unbearable, or until she regained her faith and her strength and decided to keep looking. Once she found him going into the men’s room with another dude.

“Fuck, I’m not sure if I saw what I think I did. It was just a second, I’m not sure.”

She didn’t want to tell me what she’d seen through the crack in the door. I only know it involved some pants pulled down, a paper bag, and a needle. Nothing in the vein, he’d promised from the beginning. That was their pact. Nothing in the vein.

The last night I went with her was the one that ended with Rafael and the train episode. We were on our way out. We’d gotten into Tomás’s SUV and were only waiting for Lupe, in the passenger seat, who both made out furiously with the guitarist and fought with him through the window, showing no interest in saying goodbye.

“Okay, that’s it! Get a room or fuck off!”

No matter how supportive you wanted to be, no one could stand their spectacle after the frenzy of the club, much less at that hour, feeling the burn of your own fried brain, sensing dawn’s orange ache in your eyes. I should’ve fallen asleep, but if I closed my eyes I’d vomit. Then Rafael slipped out through the car’s back window, vaulting like a monkey from beside me onto the street, or like a leopard: swift, incredibly agile. And for no apparent reason—because except for Lupe’s little scene, everything indicated that we were about to leave—he was in the middle of the road within a split second, moving against traffic, chasing the DJ, tackling him to the ground, kicking and punching. We were told later that he bit the guy’s ear and it bled. Or maybe the guy himself shouted it from the sidewalk: “You bit my ear, you son of a bitch!”

I didn’t see it; I’m not sure about the ear part. When Rafael got back into the truck, I couldn’t find any red streaks on his clothes. If you witness a fight, everything happens in slow motion, you get goosebumps; you’re safe, but you’re sweating. You take sides without caring who’s right or why. When were finally all there, Tomás slammed on the accelerator. Maybe we were fleeing something. We sped off, burning rubber.

“What the fuck, man, are you crazy? Are you gonna keep putting on these fucking shows? I’ve had it, man. Jesus.” And then, after a silence: “You’ve got some balls.”

“What did he do to you?” I asked in a whisper. Rafael looked at me with dilated pupils and an iron jaw. It was then that I noticed his hands: they were hurt, trembling. I’d never seen this particular spectacle, the emergency on the backs of his hands, his fingers, his fists still tight. Fingernails maybe digging into his palms. His tone of voice, the crack exposing a fear only partly overcome by the punches he’d dealt. People fight to shake off their fear. Better to get it all out in the open than to keep holding it in.

“That fucking fat guy owed me. If a guy talks shit you have to teach him a lesson.”

That’s it. Full stop. He said nothing more. In a few minutes my dizziness and nausea were gone.

“Man, I’m dropping you off first. I don’t even want to look at you, okay,” Tomás said to him. And then, jabbing his index finger into his temple, “You’re sick in the head. What you are is fucked up in the head.”

“Hey, who’s up for hot dogs from the Portuguese food truck?” Rafael answered.

“Fuck hot dogs, man. You’re fucking crazy.”

That was the last thing I heard before resting my head on Rafael’s thighs and succumbing to sleep.

I always thought of his incidents with everyone else as his business with everyone else—things that had nothing to do with me. As long as it’s not with me, I’d tell myself, always imagining some reason for the violence. Only he can know, I’d think. It happened because of this or that or whatever. There was no tragedy or disorder; maybe it was all part of the same expectation. The same taut rope between two cliffs, threatening to abandon us in midair. The same evolution. The same chameleon. I think he stroked my back and my hair with his swollen hands, but maybe I dreamed it. When I woke up, I was home, it was almost six in the morning, and apart from Tomás there was nobody else in the car.

Translated by Robin Myers

Languages

LALT Number 9
Number 9

Latin American Literature Today begins its third year of publication with an issue that takes in Venezuelan poetry, the writing of indigenous women, and the strange worlds of fiction. We open the journal's second volume with a dossier dedicated to Samanta Schweblin, an Argentine writer whose work tests the limits between the fantastic and the real, and then we shift to the poetry of Venezuelan poet Rafael Cadenas, winner of the 2018 Premio Reina Sofía de Poesía Iberoamericana. We also pause over Mapuche poetry, with a special selection of four young women poets who write in Mapuzungun and in Spanish, and we also stay up to date with the present debates surrounding one of the central figures of twentieth-century Latin American literature, Pablo Neruda, with an exclusive interview of his biographer Mark Eisner.

Table of Contents

Editor's Note

Featured Author: Samanta Schweblin

Dossier: Chicanx Literature

Indigenous Literature

Fiction

Chronicle

Poetry

Essays

Interviews

Previews

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